After less than three months on the job, Fairfax County School Superintendent William J. (Jack) Burkholder is under fire, trying to combat a controversy spurred by a small, outspoken group of community leaders.

The controversy centers on a move by Burkholder to streamline his administrative staff by eliminating a deputy superintendent's post created two years ago by his predecessor, Linton Deck. Burkholder's action prompted accusations of racism from some in the community, who contend the move resulted in a black administrator being passed over in favor of a white for the other deputy's job.

Burkholder and most school board members vehemently deny that race had anything to do with their final decision to appoint Donald Lacey, a 24-year employe of the school system, to the remaining deputy's post -- a job Burkholder once held.

"It's no issue at all as far as I'm concerned," Burkholder said.

Burkholder and school board members spent almost an hour at their regular meeting last week denying that the appointment was racially motivated.

The controversy began three weeks ago when Burkholder recommended the board appoint Lacey as deputy superintendent. At the same time, Burkholder asked the board to abolish the second deputy's position, even though the school system had advertised both posts as vacant.

Burkholder said he considered two "No. 2" jobs unnecessary, particularly at a time when the community has criticized the school system as being top-heavy. By cutting one deputy's post, the schools would save $125,000 a year in salaries, benefits and office expenses, Burkholder said.

But representatives of several black groups, including the Fairfax County Chapter of the NAACP, said they interpreted the move as blocking a black administrator, Herman Howard, from a deputy's appointment.

"It is my tendency to think it was based on race," board member Robert E. Frye said shortly after Lacey's appointment. Frye, the only black member of the board, cast the only dissenting vote on the issue.

Other school board members strongly denied the charges that racism played a role in the decision.

"I would be reluctant to have this school board action characterized as racial," countered school board Chairman Ann P. Kahn at last week's meeting. "It was not."

"I have no qualms with the way things were done," said board member James Kitchin. "If Burkholder is happy with it, I'll support it 100 percent."

Despite his complaints about the issue, even Frye was hesitant to question Burkholder's integrity: "I have a lot of respect for Jack Burkholder. I don't believe he'd blatantly discriminate against anyone."

Some black community groups, including the school board-appointed Human Rights Advisory Committee, had lobbied hard for Howard's appointment to one of the school system's top positions.

"There was no reason for anyone to jump to any conclusion about who the second person would have been," said Burkholder. "The assumption that it was Howard was made only by a small group of people."

Burkholder said 10 people applied for the deputies' positions. "The appointment of anyone to a position is bound to create unhappiness," he said, "because you can appoint only one of those who applied."

Burkholder said his recommendation to appoint Lacey, who has been an acting deputy since June, was based on merit and strong experience in public schools.

Lacey, 52, joined the Fairfax school system 24 years ago as an elementary teacher. He later became a principal before joining the administrative staff as an area superintendent. Burkholder said he has a "comfortable" working relationship with Lacey, who has been a close contemporary of the superintendent, joining the system about the same time and following a similar path through the ranks.

Howard, 49, was hired by the schools nine years ago as coordinator of curriculum services and was appointed an area superintendent in 1975. He also has been a teacher in Arlington County, an assistant principal in Alexandria and an instructor at Virginia Union University in Richmond and Federal City College, now part of the University of the District of Columbia.

Much of the controversy surrounding the appointment involved the way the school board handled the announcement. Some board members, conceding that the procedure could be improved, ordered the personnel committee to study policies for future appointments.

"We're all smart enough to do something about it next time," said board member Chuck Caputo.

After a long executive session Sept. 9, the board went into open session and voted to approve an administrative reorganization and Lacey's appointment. There was no discussion of what else was involved, but it was later learned that the "reorganization" meant Burkholder had requested a single deputy, rather than two.

Executive sessions are used routinely and legally to discuss personnel issues, but some county groups complain that the elimination of the deputy's post could, and should, have been discussed in public.

"The impression which we have of the process," said Cornelia Suhler of the Northern Virginia National Organization for Women, "reminds us of the fact that this kind of rapid, private decision making was for years, and in many places still is, the routine mechanism used to perpetuate the power structure of the 'Old Boys' Club' to exclude women and minorities from positions of power."

Board member Toni M. Carney argued there was nothing sinister about the board action.

"It's not unusual to advertise vacancies, go all the way through the interview process and have the manager come back and say 'I don't really need this position," said Carney. "It happens all the time in government."

Burkholder said the second deputy was a relatively new administrative change instituted by former superintendent Deck. Burkholder said he didn't decide the second position was unnecessary until after the board advertised the job.

It was the first time in recent years the school board advertised a top-level administrative position other than the superintendent's job.

"In the past the superintendent simply made a decision and the board voted," said Burkholder. "I elected to follow the usual personnel practices for filling all other jobs in the school system."